A Photo Essay On America's Forgotten Drive-In Theaters

Carl Weese takes to the road to capture the modern reality of a medium past its prime.

It’s not easy for a drive-in these days, what with rising property values, the shift away from film to digital, and the moviegoing experience commonly reduced to the size of a handheld device viewed on someone’s morning commute. In the late 1950s, over 4,000 giant white screens dotted our country’s landscape coast to coast, but now fewer than 500 remain. Connecticut photographer Carl Weese has launched a Kickstarter campaign to finish his decade-long project photographing the grandeur, however fading, of these former giants of cinema’s golden age.

He’s mapped his route so far by scouting locations on enthusiast websites—which, he admits, aren’t always exactly accurate—contacting proprietors directly, and a fair share of fortuity. “Often I just stumble across abandoned ruins. There are so many out there that you run into them if you cover enough ground,” he tells Co.Design. “Some theaters have already been ‘saved’ by community fundraising efforts to finance the transition to digital projection,” Weese explains. “If the word gets out about that, more might be rescued by similar campaigns. Theaters with a short season and a small customer base are going to have a hard time, but theaters that are open year-round or have heavy traffic from being in a popular vacation area are already managing to make the transition.” Indeed, he’s optimistic that projects like his—and the attention they receive—will motivate more folks to take part in the preservation process.

As for unexpected insights learned on the road? Most venues show a double feature for less than regular theaters charge for a single show, meaning the bulk of that admission cost goes straight to the studio. Because of this, current owners have to look to concessions for profit. “This was brought home to me when I interviewed the Detzlers, a couple who bought an old and somewhat run-down Huntington, Indiana, drive-in back around 2000,” he explains. “He had over 20 years of movie theater experience—hardtop and drive-in—while she had experience as manager of fast food outlets, and that combined resume made them bankable, which is really cool.”

Ultimately, Weese hopes to share his visual story with a traveling exhibition and book featuring images, history, and excerpts from the conversations he’s conducted with the establishments’ owners through the years. He’s already reached nearly double his goal of $8,800 to finance the remaining six-week, 12,000-mile loop from his home state to the West Coast and back again, proving, perhaps, that the public’s desire for stunning nostalgia trips will never truly be abated. And his first stop? The Detzler’s restored drive-in, which was destroyed by a windstorm back in 2005 and subsequently saved by the community that rallied around its aged icon.

Click here to donate to Weese’s Kickstarter campaign.

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5 Comments

  • Paul Anderssen

    Paul Anderssen
    The Admiral Twin Drive-in is being rebuilt as we speak in Tulsa,Ok, due to a fire in August 2010.it is the Drive-in where they filmed the movie The Outsiders.

  • Stephen Parks

    You shouldn't miss the Sunset Drive-In in Aurora, MO or the Starlight in Springfield, MO. I've shot them both, and if nothing's changed in the last 8 years - they won't disappoint.

  • Carlweese

    Stephen, thanks, I've got both of those in my research. I'll go through southern Missouri on the way out, then central and northern part of the state on the return leg.---Carl

  • Debra

    A documentary of the times . . . I hope Carl Weese can photograph the drive-in theater in Lewistown, Montana. It was still working when I was there in 2006.

  • Carlweese

    Debra, I haven't been able to confirm whether the Lewistown theater is still operating. There's a web site, but it doesn't show current films playing. But it's so far north the season may not have begun.---Carl